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History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson/Second/I:6


Chapter 6: The Two-Million ActEdit

The Ninth Congress met Dec. 2, 1805. During no period of eight years did Congress contain a smaller number of remarkable members than during the two administrations of Jefferson, from 1801 to 1809; and if the few Federalists in opposition were left out of view, the American people had in the Ninth Congress hardly a single representative, except John Randolph, capable of controlling any vote but his own. In the Senate, when George Clinton took his seat as Vice-President, he saw before him, among the thirty-four senators, not less than twenty-seven who belonged to his own party; yet among these twenty-seven Republican members of the Senate was not one whose name lived. Senator Bradley of Vermont exercised a certain influence in his day, like Dr. Mitchill of New York, or Samuel Smith of Maryland, or William B. Giles of Virginia, or Abraham Baldwin and James Jackson of Georgia. These were the leaders of the Senate, but they were men whose influence was due more to their office than to their genius; the Government gave them more weight than they could give back to it. Breckenridge of Kentucky had become attorney-general, and his seat was filled by John Adair. In the whole Senate not a Republican member could be found competent to defend a difficult financial or diplomatic measure as Gallatin or Madison could have done it, or would have wished it to be done.

In the House the Administration could count upon equally little aid. Setting aside John Randolph and Joseph Nicholson, who were more dangerous than any Federalist of New England to Government, the huge Republican majority contained no man of note. Its poverty was startling. Gallatin clung to Randolph as the only member of the House competent to conduct the public business; and no small part of Randolph's arrogance toward his own followers was due to his sense of intellectual superiority, and to the constant proof that they could do no business without his aid. Randolph was rarely arrogant in the face of men whose abilities were superior to his own, or whose will was stronger; he domineered over those whom he thought his inferiors, but he liked no contest in which he saw an uncertain hope of victory. In the Ninth Congress he met no rival in his own party. Massachusetts sent a new member, from whose oratory much was expected,—a certain Barnabas Bidwell; "but as a popular speaker he never can stand as the rival of John Randolph," was the comment of a Massachusetts senator on listening to him in the House.[1] New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were represented by an almost solid mass of Democrats, without a single leader. Virginia and the other Southern States sent many men of excellent character and of the best social position to Washington, but not one who made a national name or who tried to master the details of public business. Perhaps the ablest new member was Josiah Quincy of Boston, whose positive temper, marked abilities, and vehement Federalism made him troublesome to the majority rather than useful in legislation.

When the House met, it proceeded at once to the election of a Speaker; and the old feuds of the last session broke out again. Fifty-four votes were required to elect; and on the first ballot Macon had but fifty-one. Twenty-seven Republicans voted for Joseph B. Yarnum of Massachusetts, besides others who threw away their votes on candidates from Virginia and Pennsylvania. Only at the third ballot did Macon get a majority, and even then he received but fifty-eight votes, while the full strength of his party was more than one hundred. His first act was to reappoint Randolph and Nicholson on the Ways and Means Committee, where a place was also given to Josiah Quincy.

The President's Message was read December 3, and produced the effect to be expected. The country received it with applause as a proof of vigor. In Baltimore, and along the seaboard, it was regarded as equivalent to a declaration of war against Spain; it stopped trade, raised insurance, and encouraged piracy. The Federalist press throughout the country, except the "Evening Post," affected to admire and use it. "Federalism revived!" said the bitter "Washington Federalist;" "dignified, firm, and spirited." "This day we have been astonished," wrote a correspondent to the "Boston Centinel;" [2] "the President's speech is, in principle, almost wholly on the Washington and Adams system. It has puzzled the Federalists and offended many of the Democrats. It is in perfect nonconformity to all the former professions of the party." The Federalists exaggerated their applause in order to irritate John Randolph and his friends, who could not fail to see that the Message strengthened Madison at the expense of the old Republicans. Jefferson's private language was not less energetic than his public message. Among the favorite ideas which the President urged was that of claiming for America the ocean as far as the Gulf Stream, and forbidding hostilities within the line of deep-sea soundings. [3] One of the Massachusetts senators to whom he argued this doctrine inquired whether it might not be well, before assuming a claim so broad, to wait for a time when the Government should have a force to maintain it. The President replied by insisting that the Government, "should squint at it;" [4] and he lost no chance of doing so. He assured his friends that no privateer would ever again be permitted to cruise within the Gulf Stream.[5]

Such an attitude, public and private, roused much interest. Congress waited anxiously for the promised special message on Spanish affairs, and did not wait long. December 6, only three days after the Annual Message was sent in, the special and secret message followed; the House closed its doors, and the members listened eagerly to a communication which they expected to be, what it actually was, a turning-point in their politics.

The Message[6] very briefly narrated the story of the unratified claims convention, ending in Monroe's diplomatic misfortunes, and announced that the Spaniards showed every intention of advancing from Texas, until they should be repressed by force.

"Considering that Congress alone is constitutionally invested with the power of changing our condition from peace to war, I have thought it my duty to await their authority for using force in any degree which could be avoided. I have barely instructed the officers stationed in the neighborhood of the aggressions to protect our citizens from violence, to patrol within the borders actually delivered to us, and not to go out of them but when necessary to repel an inroad or to rescue a citizen or his property."

Passing next to the conduct of Napoleon, the Message mentioned the decided part taken by France against the United States on every point of the Spanish dispute,—

"her silence as to the Western boundary leaving us to infer her opinion might be against Spain in that quarter. Whatever direction she might mean to give to these differences, it does not appear that she has contemplated their proceeding to actual rupture, or that at the date of our last advices from Paris her Government had any suspicion of the hostile attitude Spain had taken here. On the contrary, we have reason to believe that she was disposed to effect a settlement on a plan analogous to what our ministers had proposed, and so comprehensive as to remove as far as possible the grounds of future collision and controversy on the eastern as well as western side of the Mississippi. The present crisis in Europe is favorable for pressing such a settlement, and not a moment should be lost in availing ourselves of it. Should it pass unimproved, our situation would become much more difficult. Formal war is not necessary, it is not probable it will follow; but the protection of our citizens, the spirit and honor of our country, require that force should be interposed to a certain degree. It will probably contribute to advance the object of peace. But the course to be pursued will require the command of means which it belongs to Congress exclusively to yield or to deny. To them I communicate every fact material for their information, and the documents necessary to enable them to judge for themselves. To their wisdom, then, I look for the course I am to pursue, and will pursue with sincere zeal that which they shall approve."

After the reading of this Message the House was more perplexed than ever. The few Federalists sneered. The warlike tone of the Annual Message, contradicting their theory of Jefferson's character, had already ended, as they believed, in surrender. John Randolph was angry. He felt that the President had assumed, for Madison's political profit, the tone of public bravado toward England and Spain, while Congress was required to overrule Madison's bold policy and to impose on the country what would seem a crouching cowardice of its own. The Message was at once referred to a special committee of seven members, with Randolph at its head, his friend Nicholson second in the number, John Cotton Smith, a vigorous Federalist, coming third; while, whether the Speaker intended it or not, the only person in the committee on whom the President could depend for useful service was Barnabas Bidwell, the new member from Massachusetts. Bidwell's conversion from Federalism was but recent, and neither his Federalism nor his democracy was of a kind that Randolph loved.

To this point the Louisiana precedent was closely followed, and Randolph seemed to have no excuse for refusing to do in 1805 what he had done in 1802; yet nothing could be surer than that the Randolph of 1805 was a very different man from the Randolph of three years before, as the Republi- can party of 1805 widely differed from the party which first elected Jefferson to the Presidency. No double-dealing, hesitation, or concealment was charged against Randolph. According to his own story, he called upon the President immediately, and learned, not without some surprise, that an appropriation of two millions was wanted to purchase Florida. He told the President without reserve "that he would never agree to such a measure, because the money had not been asked for in the Message; that he could not consent to shift upon his own shoulders or those of the House the proper responsibility of the Executive; but that even if the money had been explicitly demanded, he should have been averse to granting it, because, after the total failure of every attempt at negotiation, such a step would disgrace us forever,"—with much more to the same effect, which was mildly combated by Jefferson. [7]

The next day, December 7, the committee met, and Randolph, as he probably expected, found that Bidwell alone intended to support the Administration. Bidwell did not venture to act as the direct mouthpiece of the President, but undertook on his own authority to construe the Message as a demand for money, and proposed a grant to that effect. The rest of the committee gravely followed Randolph in professing to find no such meaning in the Message; Bidwell's motion had no supporter, and was promptly overruled. Jefferson's labored Resolutions, which Nicholson carried in his pocket for the committee to adopt, were suppressed; Nicholson returned them the next day to Gallatin, with a brief expression of his own decided disapproval.[8]

The committee separated, not to meet again for a fortnight; but during the following week Randolph had several interviews with the President and Secretary of State. Madison told him "that France would not permit Spain to adjust her differences with us; that France wanted money, and that we must give it to her, or have a Spanish and French war."[9] If Madison said this he told the truth. Randolph made an unfair use of the confidential words; for he proclaimed them as his excuse for declaring a public and personal war on the Secretary of State, which he waged thenceforward in a temper and by means so revolting as in the end to throw the sympathies of every unprejudiced man on the side of his victim.

"From the moment I heard that declaration," said Randolph afterward, "all the objections I originally had to the procedure were aggravated to the highest possible degree. I considered it a base prostration of the national character to excite one nation by money to bully another nation out of its property; and from that moment, and to the last moment of my life, my confidence in the principles of the man entertaining those sentiments died, never to live again."

These words would have carried more conviction had Randolph's quarrel with Madison not been of much older date. In truth he wanted a means to break down the secretary's chance of election as President, and he thought to find it here. As he said openly in Congress and in the press, "his confidence in the Secretary of State had never been very high, but now it was gone forever." [10]

The serious charge against Madison was one which Madison alone could reveal. Down to October 23 he had held Randolph's view and had protested against turning the Spanish negotiation into a French job. He could hardly blame Randolph for adhering to an opinion which had been held by President and Cabinet until within a few weeks, when they had abandoned it without explanation or excuse.

Stubbornly refusing to act, Randolph, December 14, mounted his horse and rode to Baltimore, leaving the President for the moment helpless. Every hour's delay shook party discipline, and imperilled Armstrong's success. The President appealed to Nicholson; but Nicholson also disliked the intended policy, and could be persuaded to use his influence only so far as would enable the committee to act, with the understanding that its action would be adverse to the President's wishes. Although the situation was still secret, it threatened to become scandalous, and soon became so altogether.

December 21 Randolph returned. As he dismounted at the Capitol, he was received by Nicholson, who told him of the irritation which his delay had caused. The committee was instantly called together. As Randolph went to the committee-room he was met by Gallatin, who put into his hands a paper headed, "Provision for the purchase of Florida." Although Gallatin's relations with Randolph were friendly, they did not save the Secretary of the Treasury from a sharp rebuff. Randolph broke out roughly: he would not vote a shilling for the purchase of Florida; the President should not be allowed to throw upon Congress the odium "of delivering the public purse to the first cut-throat that demanded it;" on the record the Executive would appear as recommending manly and vigorous measures, while Congress would appear as having forced him to abandon them, when in fact it was acting all the while at Executive instigation; "I do not understand this double set of opinions and principles, the one ostensible, the other real: I hold true wisdom and cunning to be utterly incompatible." With this sweeping censure of President, Cabinet, and party, Randolph turned his back on Gallatin and walked to the committee-room. There he had no trouble in carrying matters with a high hand. Instead of recommending an appropriation, the committee instructed Randolph to write to the Secretary of War asking his opinion what force was needed to protect the Southern frontier.

Christmas was then at hand, and not a step had yet been taken. Unless the spirit of faction could be crushed, not only was the fate of Madison sealed, but the career of Jefferson himself must end in failure. Nothing could be done with Randolph, who in a final interview at the White House, flatly declared "that he too had a character to support and principles to maintain," and avowed his determined opposition to the whole scheme of buying Florida of France. Jefferson, little as he liked to quarrel, accepted the challenge. Negotiations then ceased, and a party schism began.

If Randolph could not be overcome in debate, he might at least be overborne by numbers; if the best part of the old Republican party went with him, the rank and file of Northern and Western democrats would remain to support the Administration. Once more the committee was called together. Bidwell moved to appropriate two millions for foreign relations; the majority rejected his motion and adopted a report echoing the warlike tone of the President's public message, and closing with a Resolution to raise troops for the defence of the Southern frontier "from Spanish inroad and insult, and to chastise the same." This report was laid before the House by Randolph Jan. 3, 1806, when two additional Resolutions were immediately moved,—one appropriating money for extraordinary expenses in foreign intercourse, the other continuing the Mediterranean Fund for a new term of years; and the three Resolutions were referred to the House in Committee of the Whole, with closed doors.

Monday, Jan. 6, 1806, the debate began; and throughout the following week the House sat in secret session, while Randolph strained every nerve to break the phalanx of democrats which threatened to overwhelm him. Perpetually on the floor, he declaimed against the proposed negotiation at Paris; while Nicholson, unwillingly consenting to vote for the two millions, said openly that he hoped in God the negotiation would fail. When at length a vote could be reached, the Administration carried its point,—seventy-two members supporting the President, against a minority of fifty-eight; but in this minority was included no small number of the most respectable Republicans. Twelve of the twenty-two Virginia members broke away from the President; and for the first time in a struggle vital to Jefferson's credit, more than half the majority consisted of Northern men.

The House having recovered control of the matter, thrust Randolph aside, rapidly passed a Bill appropriating two million dollars for extraordinary expenses in foreign relations, and Jan. 16, 1806, sent it to the Senate by a vote of seventy-six to fifty-four. It was accompanied by a secret message explaining that the money was intended for the purchase of Spanish territory east of the Mississippi. The Senate closed its doors, and with the least possible debate, Feb. 7, 1806, passed the bill, which, February 13, received the President's approval. Not until March 13,[11] six months after Armstrong's despatch had been written, did Madison at length send to Paris a public authority for Armstrong to offer France five million dollars for Florida and Texas to the Colorado,—an authority which should have been secret and prompt, to be worth sending at all.

Jefferson carried his point; he won a victory over Randolph, and silenced open resistance within the party; but his success was gained at a cost hitherto unknown in his experience. The men who were most obedient in public to his will growled in private almost as fiercely as Randolph himself. Senator Bradley made no secret of his disgust. Senator Anderson of Tennessee frankly said that he wished the Devil had the Bill; that the opposition did not half know how bad it was; that it was the most pernicious measure Jefferson had ever taken; "but so it was, so he would have it, and so it must be!"[12] Three Republican Senators—Bradley, Logan, and Mitchill—absented themselves at the final vote; four more—Adair, Gilman, Stone, and Sumter—voted against the Bill, which on its third reading obtained only seventeen voices in its favor against eleven in opposition. Worse than this, the malcontents felt that for the first time in the history of their party the whip of Executive power had been snapped over their heads; and, worst of all, the New England Federalists took for granted that Jefferson had become a creature of Napoleon. Of all political ideas that could gain a lodgment in the public mind, this last was the most fatal!

That either Jefferson or Madison was led by French sympathies has been shown to be untrue. Both of them submitted to the violence of all the belligerents alike, and their eagerness for Florida caused them by turns to flatter and to threaten Spain, France, and England; but not even for the sake of Florida would they have taken either a direct or an indirect part with France. Their unwillingness to offend Napoleon rose not from sympathy with him, but from the conviction that he alone could give Florida to the United States without the expense and losses inevitable in a war. Unhappily the public knew little of what President Jefferson had done or was doing; and another piece of legislation, carried through Congress at the same moment with the "Two-million Act," went far to fix the Federalists in their belief that the Administration obeyed the beck and call of the French Emperor.

The Annual Message made no allusion to St. Domingo; no public announcement had been given that the Executive wished for further legislation in regard to its trade, when, Dec. 18, 1805, Senator Logan of Pennsylvania brought forward a Bill to prohibit the trade altogether. That he acted without concert with Madison was not to be conceived. Logan privately admitted as his only object the wish of enabling Madison to tell the French government that the trade was forbidden, and that the merchants who carried it on did so at their own peril.[13] The Federalist senators opposed the Bill, and were joined by several Republicans. General Smith and Dr. Mitchill spoke against it. The opposition showed that the measure would sacrifice several hundred thousand dollars of revenue; that it would close the last opening which the new British policy left for American commerce with the West Indies; that it would throw the commerce with St. Domingo wholly into British hands; that it was an attempt to carry out French objects by American legislation, which would endanger the property and lives of American citizens in the island; and finally, that it was done in obedience to Napoleon's orders. December 27 the Senate called for the diplomatic correspondence on the subject, and the President communicated the extraordinary notes in which Talleyrand and Turreau declared that the commerce "must" not continue. The Senate received this mandate without protest or remonstrance; and after a long debate passed the Bill, Feb. 20, 1806, by a party vote of twenty-one to eight. Of the twenty-seven Republican senators, Stone of North Carolina alone voted against it. Amid execrations against the Haytian negroes, the Bill was next forced through the House almost without debate, and Feb. 28, 1806, received the President's signature.

This law,[14] limited to one year, declared that any American vessel "which shall be voluntarily carried, or shall be destined to proceed" to St. Domingo should be wholly forfeited, ship and cargo. Passed in consequence of Napoleon's positive order, communicated by the President to Congress as though to overawe objection, the Act violated the principles of international law, sacrificed the interests of Northern commerce, strained the powers of the Constitution as formerly construed by the party of State-rights, and, taken in all its relations, might claim distinction among the most disgraceful statutes ever enacted by the United States government. Nevertheless, this measure, which bore on its face the birth-mark of Napoleonic features, did in fact owe its existence chiefly to a different parentage. In truth, the Southern States dreaded the rebel negroes of Hayti more than they feared Napoleon. Fear often made them blind to their own attitudes; in this instance it made them indifferent to the charge of servility to France. The opportunity to declare the negroes of Hayti enemies of the human race was too tempting to be rejected; and not only did the Southern Republicans eagerly seize it, but they persuaded their Northern allies to support them. John Randolph himself, though then wearying the House day after day with cries that Madison had sold the honor of the United States to France, never alluded to this act of subservience, which would have made any other Administration infamous, and quietly absented himself at the vote, that he might seem neither to obey Bonaparte's mandate nor to oppose the Bill. Of the twenty-six voices against it, nearly all were Federalists; yet in this curious list, side by side with Josiah Quincy, Samuel Dana, and John Cotton Smith, stood the names of Jacob Crowninshield and Matthew Lyon, democrats of the deepest dye and objects of John Randolph's bitterest sneers.

The "Two-million Act" and the Act forbidding commerce with St. Domingo were measures equally necessary for the success of the Florida purchase. Without conciliating Napoleon at St. Domingo, Jefferson could not expect his help at Paris. These measures, together with some appearance of military activity, completed the Executive scheme of foreign policy in regard to France and Spain; the more difficult task remained of dealing with England.

When the first news of Sir William Scott's decision in the case of the "Essex" arrived in America, the merchants were indignant; and their anger steadily rose as the confiscation of American ships became more general, until at length, in December, 1805, Stephen's pamphlet, "War in Disguise," arrived, and was reprinted in the newspapers. By the close of the year 1805 no one could longer doubt that Great Britain had, so far as suited her purposes, declared war against the United States.

The issue was simple. The United States might make war in return, or submit. Any measure short of open hostilities had unquestionably been taken into Pitt's account, and would produce no effect on his policy. War alone could move him from his purpose; but war would destroy American commerce and ruin Federalist resources, while any retaliation short of war would not only prove ineffective, but would injure the American merchants alone. Their dilemma was so unavoidable that they could not fail to be caught in it. George Cabot saw their danger from the first. Much against his will the merchants of Boston placed him upon a committee to draw a remonstrance to Congress against the British doctrine of neutral trade. "Our friend Cabot," wrote Fisher Ames, [15] "is much, too much, mortified that he is one of them. He hates hypocrisy, and respects principles; and he dreads lest the popular feeling should impel the committee to deny what he believes to be true, or to ask for what he knows to be mischievous." The Boston "Memorial," [16] drawn by James Lloyd, was as cautious as popular feeling would tolerate, and asked no action from Government except the appointment of a special mission to strengthen the hands of Monroe at London; but Cabot signed it with extreme reluctance, and only with the understanding that it did not represent his personal views. The Philadelphia "Memorial" closed with stronger language, suggesting that war must be the result if Great Britain refused redress. The Baltimore "Memorial," drawn by William Pinkney, spoke in strong tones, but offered no advice. Toward the middle of January, 1806, these memorials, together with others, were sent to Congress by the President, with a Message inviting the Legislature to take the matter hand, but offering no opinion as to the proper course to pursue.[17]

The fears of George Cabot were quickly justified, He chiefly dreaded the theories of the Republican party, which in his opinion were more destructive to American commerce than the British doctrines themselves or the demands of James Stephen. Jefferson and Madison were bent on testing the theory of the first Inaugural Address,—that commerce was the handmaid of agriculture; but in the harshest application of the slave-code of South Carolina or Georgia such treatment as agriculture proposed to her handmaid would have been rejected as inhuman, for it was a slow torture.

The theory of peaceable coercion, on which Jefferson relied, had often been explained as a duel in which either side counted upon exhausting its opponent by injuring itself. As Madison once said of the British manufacturers: "There are three hundred thousand souls who live by our custom: let them be driven to poverty and despair, and what will be the consequence?" The question was more easily asked than answered, for in the actual condition of Europe economical laws were so violently disturbed that no man could venture to guess what fresh extravagance might result from new delirium; but while the three hundred thousand Englishmen were starving, three hundred thousand Americans would lose the profit on their crops, and would idly look at empty warehouses and rotting ships. English laborers had for many generations been obliged to submit to occasional suffering; Americans were untrained to submission. Granting that the Boston merchant, like the injured Brahmin, should seat himself at the door of the British offender, and slowly fast to death in order that his blood might stain the conscience of Pitt, he could not be certain that Pitt's conscience would be stimulated by the sacrifice, for the conscience of British Tories as regarded the United States had been ever languid. Cabot saw no real alternative between submission to Great Britain and the entire sacrifice of American commerce. He preferred submission.

The subject in all its bearings quickly came before Congress. Jan. 15, 1806, the Senate referred to a special committee that part of the President's Message which related to the British seizures. February 5, General Smith reported on behalf of the committee a series of Resolutions denouncing these seizures as an encroachment on national independence, and recommending the prohibition of British woollens, linens, silks, glass-wares, and a long list of other articles. On this Resolution the debate began, and soon waxed hot.


  1. Diary of J. Q. Adams (March 8, 1806), i. 419.
  2. Columbian Centinel, Dec. 21, 1805.
  3. Cabinet Memoranda; Jefferson's Writings (Ford), i. 308.
  4. Diary of J. Q. Adams (Nov. 30, 1805), i. 376.
  5. Jefferson to Monroe, May 4, 1806; Writings (Ford), viii. 447.
  6. State Papers, ii. 613.
  7. First Letter of Decius, in the "Richmond Enquirer," August, 1806.
  8. Nicholson to Gallatin, Dec. 8, 1805; Gallatin MSS.
  9. Decius, No. 1; Randolph's speech of April 5, 1806; Annals of Congress, 1805-1806, pp. 984-985.
  10. Decius, No. 1.
  11. Madison to Armstrong and Bowdoin, March 13, 1806; State Papers, iii. 539.
  12. Diary of J. Q. Adams (Feb. 8, 1806), i. 405.
  13. Diary of J. Q. Adams (Jan. 15, 1806), i. 383.
  14. Act of Feb. 28, 1806; Annals of Congress, 1805-1806, p. 1228.
  15. Ames to Pickering; Ames's Works, i. 342. Cf. Lodge's Cabot, p. 315.
  16. Boston Memorial; Annals of Congress, 1806-1809, Appendix, p. 890.
  17. Message of Jan. 17, 1806; State Papers, ii. 727